Do you like horror action games where you are in face-to-face combat with bloody monsters? Or do you like adventure games in which you are immersed in an imaginary world, uncovering dark secrets and solving mysteries? Here’s your chance to do both in a single game. Throw in multiple scenarios, multiple endings, and multiple combat and puzzle levels, and you get a long, brooding nightmare called Silent Hill 2.
Silent Hill 2 was created by Konami, a veteran Japanese game developer and publisher, following the blockbuster success of the original Silent Hill which had debuted in 1999. Silent Hill 2 was first released in Japan in September 2001 for PlayStation 2. Extremely popular on PS2 and Xbox, it was later released for PC.
Step into the nightmare..
The game opens in a disgustingly filthy, dilapidated public toilet (quite lovely, isn’t it?), with a close-up shot of the protagonist, James Sunderland (who reminds me of the popular English soccer player David Beckham).
He has come here, to the lakeside town of Silent Hill, after he received a letter from his wife, Mary. She says she is waiting for him in their “special” place. The only problem is that his wife has been dead for 3 years. James is still mourning the loss of his wife, and quite confused with the letter. Is this some kind of cruel joke, or is she alive somehow?
In this third-person perspective game, playing as James Sunderland, you are going to find out what really happened to your wife.
When you reach the town, you find it deserted, with no sign of life except for – you guessed it – monsters, lots of them. Every street, every corner is shrouded in almost impenetrable fog, which gives way only grudgingly and closes in just as quickly. You see smears of blood everywhere. Everything looks run-down, grungy, and dark. You can’t even tell what time of the day it is.
You will encounter four human (or seemingly human) companions in the game, Angela, Maria, Laura, and Eddie, who all seem to be in serious need of psychiatric care. Angela is a disturbed young woman with suicidal tendencies. Maria looks identical to James’s late wife, except his wife would have never worn a tight-fitting mini-skirt, exposing her mid-riff with a tattoo. Laura is a bratty 8 year old who is also looking for Mary. Eddie is a big boy whom you’ll first see puking into the toilet bowl.
They are not there necessarily to help you in your quest, but may help shed light to the mystery surrounding your wife, this desolate town, and the very reason why you are here.
The game has a story to tell
What differentiates Silent Hill 2 from run-of-the-mill horror action games is its intriguing storyline. Sick and disturbing it may be, but the game has a story to tell, and it does it pretty well without forcing you to watch a cut scene that lasts 5 minutes, listen to a long monologue explaining things, or to read pages upon pages of journals and diaries. (The only exception is a letter that appears in the monologue. It goes on and on and on and on and…)
The mystery unravels bit by bit, through short interactions with people you encounter, through snippets of newspaper and magazine articles you get to read. Dark surroundings of decrepit buildings and monsters start to weigh on you. These monsters look disturbingly human, somehow flipped inside out. You begin to wonder what kind of people remain human anyway (that includes you, as James) in this town. The conclusion you may come to may not be pretty. Eddie shouts in one scene, “This town called you too. You and I are the same. Don’t you know that?”
The horror in this game is more psychological than physical. It comes from not knowing exactly what’s happening around you in this dreary place, not knowing why you are here, and not knowing when and if all this will end and how. It is like a nightmare that you desperately try to wake up from.
(The whole game looks and feels like a movie. And guess what? Sony Picture has indeed made a movie out of the original Silent Hill, and it was released in the U.S. in July 2006. It is now available on DVD as well.)
And it does it in style
And the game tells the story in style. Graphics match the nightmarish storyline and disturbing themes. They create a haunting, sinister, and grungy atmosphere which is enhanced by restrained but good sound effects.
The developer’s attention to detail is obvious in the visual description of the different locations. You can almost smell a foul odor of a corpse, and you squirm when James puts his hand in the clogged toilet.
Characters look realistic, instead of looking cartoonish as is often the case with third-person perspective games. They are created with 3D polygon and are imparted with enough facial expression and natural movement. They transition pretty smoothly from cut scenes to game scenes.
The single most effective visual element is the fog / darkness that envelops almost every scene and the use of light. The flashlight, which you will pick up (hopefully) earlier in the game, wobbles very realistically as you walk or run in the dark, but the light is barely enough to see a few steps ahead. It gives you this sinking feeling that you are trapped here forever.
I must say, though, they could have done a better job on trees and vegetation, which look as natural as the trees in the original Myst game.
Puzzles and monsters
I set the puzzle level as Hard (hardest it can get in the version I had), but by the adventure game standard the puzzles are not very difficult. In most cases they have their internal logic which you can pretty much figure out without consulting the walkthrough. If they are random, you won’t suffer endless trials and errors. They mostly involve finding objects that will be needed to get to the next location, or simply opening the door to the next location.
Monsters on the streets and in the buildings look like bloody mannequins often with two sets of legs (one set replacing where arms should be). Sometimes they are armed with sticks to whack your head. There are door-monsters, which look like, well, a door. You also encounter giant monkey-like monsters that hang from metal grates on the ground. They will try to grab you by the foot as you walk or run on the grates. In addition, there are oversized cockroaches everywhere.
These monsters are not really scary, but you can get killed by them. Once, I got so upset when I was killed by the swarm of giant cockroaches when I set the combat level to Normal. If you prefer, you can just avoid fighting the monsters on the streets by running past them, saving ammo for encounters in tight corners where you have no choice.
Killing monsters won’t affect the outcome of the game. If you get injured by them, whether you treat the injury or not may affect the outcome. If you get killed, that’s the end of your game. Much as I love arcade shooting games, I had the combat level as Beginner because of the control issue (discussed later).
In each main location, you will encounter the head honcho, the executioner who wears a blood-stained triangular helmet. He seems to kill both humans and monsters. For most of the time, all you can do is avoid getting killed by him and run. And run fast…
I thought the voice acting in Silent Hill 2 was quite good, if somewhat overplayed. Female characters in the game seem to burst into a diatribe at the slightest perceived insult, which some of you may feel out of place and context. (Personally, I felt like I was back in Japan watching prime-time TV drama.)
English, which was translated from original Japanese, flows naturally enough. Actors are all native speakers. You can turn on the subtitles, but you really don’t need them. The words are spoken clearly, well above the ambient sound level. You still read James’s thoughts in subtitles.
Multiple scenarios, multiple endings
Another thing I found great about this game is that you get to play multiple scenarios and multiple endings. There are two different scenarios, the main scenario where you play James Sunderland, and the sub-scenario where you play Maria, who wakes up one day not knowing where she is or who she is. The sub-scenario is much shorter, but quite charming on its own. [Editorial Note: This extra scenario where you play as Maria was not available on the original PS2 version of the game. It is however available on the Xbox and PC versions as well as the PS2 Greatest Hits version.]
For the main scenario, depending on what you do and/or how you behave in the game, you get four different endings. One of them is not accessible the first time you play through the game. You also get two Easter-egg endings which are triggered after you finish both the main scenario and the sub-scenario once. I have to caution you that none of the regular endings are what you would call happy endings.
The Easter-egg endings cut a happy contrast to the dreary regular endings. They will definitely make you laugh. They will also cut short the game prematurely, but they are so hilariously funny you shouldn’t miss. (You’ll even get to see James without a shirt.) Who says Japanese don’t have a sense of humor? Ech ending comes with unique original theme music that attempts to capture the mood of the particular ending.
And nightmarish game control
Now the bad part… Nightmare is also the right word for the game control for the PC version. As this game was translated from game console platform to PC, the control is done on your keyboard.
It is simply maddening, if you don’t have a joystick or gamepad (I don’t). It was so awkward to control the movement using the direction keys I almost abandoned the game even before I got out of the public toilet. (That was like 10 seconds into the game.)
You do get used to it, with enough perseverance and determination (i.e. get your money’s worth), but this is definitely a big minus of the game for PC gamers. [Editorial Note: It is worth pointing out that the controls are fairly simple, easy-to-learn, and much less frustrating on the PS2 versions of the game that I have played.]
All the game control keys are programmable in the Control Options menu, if you don’t like what comes as default. For PC gamers using the keyboard for control, I recommend using the rotational control (default), instead of directional.
Multiple skill level settings
The game has four combat level settings: Beginner, Easy, Normal, and Hard. The higher combat settings result in more monsters that are harder to kill and faster - instead of 2 whacks to the head, it takes 5 whacks or more to kill them. If you don’t have a joystick or game pad, setting the combat setting to Beginner takes the pressure off of having to move fast.
There are four puzzle level settings available: Easy, Normal, Hard, Extra Hard (later version only). For adventure game buffs, only the puzzle levels of Hard or Extra Hard would satisfy your inquiring mind.
Collecting Inventory items can be tricky
Since there are no hot spots that you can find with the mouse (you can’t use the mouse!!), the only way to identify inventory items is to observe if James turns his head to any particular direction. It becomes harder to detect his head turning if you have him run. To pick an item, you press the space bar (that’s the Action key). One tricky thing is to direct James to just the right angle facing the item; otherwise he won’t pick it up.
There are three types of inventory items: weapons and ammo, health drinks and first-aid kits, and odd objects like keys, bottles, a piece of hair, etc. necessary to solve the puzzles. Certain items do not appear until after certain events are triggered.
The single most important type of inventory item is the maps. This is a long game, with numerous locations to explore. If you are geographically challenged like I am, finding a map should be the first priority. You won’t be able to leave the initial parking lot (where the filthy toilet stands) unless you find a map of Silent Hill first, but in all the other locations it is quite possible to miss it.
Other game play consideration
The game comes with 3 CD-ROMs, installs without any problems, and is stable. The bulk of the game is installed on your hard disk, so you don’t need to swap CD-ROMs in the middle of the game. You do need the Disc 1 on your CD-ROM/DVD drive at all times to play the game.
Unlike the PS2 and Xbox versions, you can save the game any time, though I ran out of saving slots after 100 saves and had to overwrite. I don’t know if it is the same in later versions or not. Hitting the escape key temporarily stops the game, and gives you an access to the menu screen.
This game is rated “mature”, and rightly so. In addition to blood and gore and strong language, there are some very dark themes (suicide, abuse, murder, mental illness, etc.). I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who feel themselves too impressionable and susceptible to negative suggestions. (Seriously.) The combination of monster-bashing action with mystery-solving adventure may not necessarily satisfy fans of either game genre. If anything, I think horror action fans are more disappointed because fighting the monsters is not the essential part of the game.
That said, the game manages to finish strongly without losing steam. The game near the end seems to be made with the same attention to detail as the beginning. It is a tightly and stylishly made, story and character-driven survival horror game.
If you are of sound body and mind, and can tolerate a slight diversion (of fighting the monsters) from your quest for the truth, you will find the game’s nightmarish atmosphere and story quite disturbing and yet entertaining. It is definitely worth your time, and with multiple endings and multiple scenarios, replay value is quite high. You might want to consider borrowing, if not buying, a joystick or gamepad, for the PC version though.